Why Buy a USB Flash Drive?
With so many cloud storage systems like Dropbox and Google Drive, why would anyone want a USB flash drive? Well, for most people, storing and transferring large files or large numbers of files is still cumbersome using online systems. A USB flash drive gives you a quick and easy way to transfer large amounts of data, including photos, music, documents and videos.
One reason to use USB flash drives for mass data transfer or storage is their portability. Sure, you could load everything onto your portable hard drive, but those are usually bulky and a bit heavy. USB sticks often weigh less than an ounce and fit comfortably on a key ring. The best USB flash drives combine high portability with excellent performance and storage capacity.
It's important to not that USB flash drives should not be used for long-term storage, as they usually don't last as long as a regular hard drive. Flash drives are best used as a short-term storage and transfer tool.
Not all USB flash drives are created equal, and our lineup is here to show you which ones are the very best. Our comprehensive USB flash drive reviews can help you find the storage solution that's right for you. Our top USB sticks are the SanDisk Extreme, Lexar JumpDrive P10 and the Kingston DataTraveler. For more information, read our articles on USB flash drives.
USB Flash Drives: What to Look For
There are several things to consider when looking at USB flash drives. While some thumb drives have a greater capacity, they may not perform as well as the competition. The USB drive industry is not as clear-cut as its marketing would have you believe. Our reviews break everything down into the following categories:
We used CrystalDiskMark to assess the performance of each USB flash drive. This included test sizes of 100MB, 1000MB and 4000MB. We had CrystalDiskMark run five passes in each instance, and we repeated the test three times for each test size. This essentially gave us 15 passes of benchmark data, which we then averaged.
With thumb drives, performance is king. Now that there are many cheap options for USB 3.0 flash drives, there really is no reason to get a USB 2.0 drive. USB 3.0 brings much better file transfer speeds than what USB 2.0 could deliver. For example, the best USB 2.0 flash drives could only transfer files at speeds of 30 to 40MBps. The best USB 3.0 flash drives are closing in on 250MBps. It's important to note that USB 3.0 drives work in USB 2.0 ports; you'll just be limited to USB 2.0 speeds.
You should know that different capacities of the same drive perform differently. For example, the 32GB SanDisk Extreme has a read speed of 245MBps and a write speed of 100MBps. The 64GB version has the same read speed, but a significantly faster write speed of 190MBps. Essentially, the larger the drive, the faster the write speed, as long as the drive's controller doesn't become a bottleneck.
Speaking of capacity, most of the drives we looked at come in several different capacities, ranging from 8GB all the way up to 128GB. For simple file transfers, 8GB is plenty. 16GB and 32GB USB flash drives are useful for storing or transferring large music libraries and raw images. You'll want to get 64GB or more for storing or transferring HD-quality movies or TV shows.
We prefer thumb drives that have a capless design, and we ranked those that do higher. You don't want to lose the cap to your USB stick, because that leaves the connector exposed and makes it more prone to damage. It's better to not worry about a cap at all. That said, some drives with a sliding mechanism are built poorly – they use a ribbon cable to connect the USB plug to the drive's board. That ribbon can wear out relatively quickly. The best USB flash drives are designed to move the whole board with the sliding mechanism.
As you use your USB flash drive, the memory can become unreliable if data is written and rewritten in the same memory position. Think of it like a waterfall pounding on a specific part of a stone: You'll see a hole form in the stone relatively quickly. Some thumb drives have a technology called wear leveling that distributes data across the drive equally so that it ages uniformly. This is like spreading the waterfall out over all of the stone. The end result is that drives with wear leveling usually last significantly longer than those that don't have it.
You don't just want your thumb drive to last for a long time; you also want to make sure the data on that drive can be protected. Some drives allow you to protect their content with a password. Some give you hardware encryption to make your data even more secure. A few even have cloud backup capabilities so that you never have to worry about losing your data completely.
Help & Support
Even though USB flash drives are relatively simple and easy to use, you want to make sure that the drive's manufacturer provides sufficient documentation and support in case anything goes wrong. The most important thing to consider is how long the drive's warranty lasts. Five-year warranties aren't uncommon, and you'll even find some lifetime warranties, which are excellent.
The best USB flash drives give you an impressive amount of flexibility in how you manage your data. They also perform incredibly fast, in some cases not terribly far off from solid-state drive speeds. You should expect some form of data protection to keep your documents safe from prying eyes. We've taken a look at the best drives on the market and compared them so you can find one that suits your needs.